Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Heisenberg and the Plight of the Modern Backpacker: A Tour of Thailand

I went to Bangkok, saw oddles of temples, and didn't take any pictures.
This is partly because to do so would expose my laughable photography skills, and partly because I think that the photograph is increasingly relied upon as the only legitimate means of demonstrating or absorbing new experiences. We don't bother to remember, because a photo can do it better. And along with remembrance goes thought, because this cannot be digitally documented and thus lacks legitimacy.
Of course, there's only so much thought that should really go into a drunken photo of your friends pretending to have moustaches, but Bangkok's temples are something quite different. A temple is nice to look at – covered, as they are, by dragons – but simply to look at them without thinking about what they represent seems to me somewhat akin to hoping to know about bees by staring at the outside of a beehive.

The search for legitimacy is closely linked to the search for authenticity, and both are troublingly on their way to becoming necessary conditions of the modern backpacking experience. There are some problems associated with the dictation of what is or is not an 'authentic' expression of culture, especially in the context of those countries for whom colonialism remains a fresh collective memory. What many backpackers dismiss as inauthentic is those portions of a culture which cater to tourists; e.g. The very portions of which they themselves avail. Many move further from the mainstream areas, in hopes of somehow catching hold of something truly authentic.
Thus, backpackers encounter the same frustration that quantum mechanics ran into nearly a century ago. The uncertainty principle posits, simply, that one cannot observe without affecting. Similarly, a tourist cannot visit a new place without engaging in tourism, thus rendering the place “inauthentic” in some small way. The fetishization of authenticity is such that backpackers search for it in increasingly obscure places, ironically becoming the vanguard of tourism spread to many new corners of the globe. I'm not convinced that any part of a culture could ever be deemed inauthentic, and I'm not a fan of this style of travelling.
On the other end of the continuum is Khao San Road. Just about every tourist in Bangkok stays on this one road and the stoic history of Bangkok creaks and groans with the strain of thousands of tourists spilling out of Khao San Road like ants from a hill, consuming history and beauty as a light snack before washing it down/away with the main course of beer. Crawling annoyances though they may be, ants present a tasty meal in themselves to more than a few predators. These line the street to form a gauntlet through which KSR visitors must pass – the new and the unwary being picked off. Very little exists here except things designed to be consumed or enjoyed by tourists. Khao San Road is the archetypal “inauthentic” place, and – just so I don't get too comfortable up on my philosophical high horse – I have to admit that I don't like it one bit.
So on the one hand I don't approve of searching for an authentic version of a culture. On the other, I can't stand Khao San Road. I cannot extract myself from this conundrum, but I do hope to find middle ground. The compromise I've proposed to myself is the following: I accept that Khao San Road is a legitimate expression of Thai tourism culture, but I would rather experience a section of the culture more heavily weighted toward another sphere; perhaps something involving nature.
This is a long philosophical backstory to explain how it was that I wound up being head-butted by a baby elephant in the forests of Northern Thailand.
More on that later.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree with you more in regards to your first few lines on being burdened with the pressure of taking photos to remember an event or location. The reliance on the camera is something I am trying to wean myself off of and absorb the experience through different sensations rather than just digital visualization. Cheers!